Today, cruise ships are big because they’re cheaper to run (on a per passenger basis) and therefore are more profitable when cruising at full occupancy due to economies of scale. But, is this necessarily a good thing for the average cruise passenger?
When one looks back on the history of the cruise industry there is only one over-riding trend that has never changed: cruise ship’s are getting bigger and offering more entertainment options and activities than ever before. Since the turn of the century, passenger ships have been growing, but during the era of ocean liners, size was important for comfort and stability at sea during a winter crossing of the Atlantic, or any other ocean for that matter. Today, cruise ships are big because they’re cheaper to run (on a per passenger basis) and therefore are more profitable when cruising at full occupancy due to economies of scale. But, is this necessarily a good thing for the average cruise passenger?
The largest cruise ships, carrying upwards of 5,000 people are essentially small cities on the water, with bars, restaurants, pools, theatres, cinemas, ice rinks, indoor parks (Oasis and Allure of the Seas), shopping malls, medical clinics and much more. They’re busy, noisy ships where there’s always something to do and something to see on any given day of the cruise.
Smaller ships tend to be operated by premium and luxury cruise lines (although the large cruise lines do increasingly have premium areas that you can pay extra to use). They go to more exotic destinations, tend to have a more laid-back array of activities and entertainment and offer a greater degree of personalised service. Smaller cruise ships are more social as well, because there are fewer passengers and not as many public areas in which to spend time, so you’ll bump into the same people often and likely strike up friendships easier.
There are pros and cons to each, so here is our quick guide to see which is best for you.
Cruise ships carrying fewer than 1,000 passengers are generally quicker with boarding and disembarking, especially at a port that requires passengers to be tendered ashore. But, this isn’t always the case, Royal Caribbean, for example, have mastered the art of processing thousands of passengers and their Oasis and Allure of the Seas giants have some of the shortest wait times for boarding and disembarking. On smaller ships however, there are also fewer queues during the cruise, you can easily find a deck chair, a free table at breakfast or a few seats for your group in the show lounge or theatre.
The larger cruise ships are floating metropolises of choice when it comes to dining venues – aboard Royal Princess, for example, there are nine different restaurants in addition to the Dining Room, and they have a range of dining styles for passengers to choose from (Traditional, Anytime, Casual etc). Aboard smaller cruise ships, there is far less choice, but usually a much greater attention to detail as the galley isn’t mass producing thousands of the same meal. The service tends to be more attentive as well, as you aren’t one of 4,000 people the waiters are serving on any given night.
Activities and entertainment
Royal Caribbean and Norwegian Cruise Line and their mega cruise ships lead the industry in terms of onboard activities and entertainment, while Carnival Cruises, the largest cruise line in the world, leads the way in terms of onboard fun. All three of these cruise lines have water parks, massive sports decks with volley ball, tennis and other games, theatres where Broadway-style shows are performed, karaoke bars, dodgem cars, ice rinks and a range of opportunities for passengers to get involved in activities (charades, line dancing, cooking classes, singing competitions). Aboard smaller ships the activities and entertainment is far less, there are lectures about the ports being visited, small-scale more intimate performances in the show lounge and a greater emphasis on passengers entertaining themselves by mingling and making friends.
Big ships offers lots of opportunities for families to play together — and separately. These ships have large playrooms for young passengers and distinct spaces for teenagers, plus video arcades, pizzerias, and ice cream stands. Smaller ships typically don’t have playrooms, or even organised activities for children, even during the school holidays and especially not outside of the peak season – although MSC Opera, which is cruising the South African coast this cruise season is an exception. While she is classed as a smaller to medium sized cruise ship, MSC Cruises have always put an array of entertainment options for children on their South African cruise itineraries.
Large cruise ships tend to cruise the waters of the main cruise destinations each year (winter in the Caribbean, Southeast Asia and increasingly the Middle East, summer in the Mediterranean, Northern Europe and for MSC Cruises Brazil and South Africa). They all tend to offer very similar itineraries, which isn’t a bad thing if you’re fairly new to cruising or if you particularly like those destinations (Cruise Arabia & Africa will never get tired of visiting Dubrovnik in Croatia!), but if you want something a little more exotic and out of the way, a smaller ships will provide it with more destination immersive itineraries.